RFID reloaded: more than just a speed boost

The benefits of RFID can only be seen in the context of an organisation's complete work and information flow, says retail systems company

The early use of radio frequency identification technology (RFID) has much in common with early use of computers, says Miles Bland of Auckland-based retail systems company Triquestra International.

In its early days, RFID’s potential was overestimated and its use misdirected. It has also often been used rather simplistically, to automate already flawed manual or barcode-based systems.

“The idea behind RFID is good, but the early tags and readers couldn’t give the speed and accuracy required. We’re only getting there now,” says Bland.

The people who pushed the technology in the early days have left a mixed legacy of benefit, misdirection and disappointment behind, and it’s now time for a reassessment, he says.

The main lesson is that the benefits of RFID can only be seen in the context of an organisation’s complete work and information flow.

“Instead of this, we’ve had IT departments benchmarking it independently of the rest of the system. [They ask]: ‘how many items can we stocktake or scan out in an hour?’ People think adopting RFID will automatically confer efficiency. That’s not really the point. What it gives you is end-to-end transparency. You can find out how long a product stays on the shelf, how and when it gets replaced, and who’s bought it.”

It’s this information which can increase efficiency, by showing-up holes in existing practices, says Bland.

RFID should, initially, be integrated with current workflow. Only after this should the lessons learned be taken on board and used to improve workflow and other practices, he says.

“If you’ve got good analytics, RFID will make you money by making you ask the right questions. ‘Why do we sell this product at this price? Why do we discount it under these circumstances?’”

Currently, Triquestra is involved in implementing RFID systems for two largish local retailers it declines to name. One is looking at the economics of reusable RFID tags. They are being used to co-ordinate storage of stock and are then taken off the various pallets and boxes and rewritten for a fresh batch of stock.

RFID software is much more powerful than it used to be, with XML interfaces developed to mate scanner systems with ERP systems, says Bland.

Like most new technologies, RFID also allows new abuses, he says. Complex rewriteable tags can be falsely rewritten or infected with viruses by maverick staff or rivals, or even a hacker with civil liberties concerns.

The rfidvirus.org website features some disturbing scenarios developed by Dutch university researchers. They show, for example, viruses spreading through supermarket and food supplier systems, or via RFID-equipped baggage check-in systems, to hundreds of airports worldwide.

With today’s laws on the chipping of domestic animals, the researchers say even dogs or cats could become virus vectors.

“Some companies with a vested interest in RFID technology have said their software can withstand attacks such as the ones we have proposed,” say the researchers.

“We hope that is the case. These claims would be much more believable, however, if the companies made their software available to universities and other neutral parties for testing, along with a large reward — say, $100,000 — for the first person to construct a virus that successfully infects [the software].

“If no one is able to infect the software after say six months the claim that the software cannot be infected is a great deal stronger than merely stating this without proof.

“The nice part of this, for the company [concerned], is that if the software is bullet-proof, [the trial] costs the company nothing.”

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